Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Local disability justice organization Access Living is pushing the Chicago Fire Department to make emergency services more accessible to people who use motorized wheelchairs.

For local disability rights activist Michael Grice, having his motorized wheelchair with him is essential. His ability to move freely determines his independence.

Because ambulances lack the space to carry assistive devices such as wheelchairs, walkers, and phonographs for disabled patients, many people taken to hospital are forced to leave their wheelchairs behind.

Motorized wheelchairs are particularly difficult to transport due to their large size and weight. But some people, like Grice, who only has the use of one arm, cannot use the manual wheelchairs available in hospitals.

Grice, who lives in Oak Park, said he is separated from his motorized wheelchair in emergency situations about two to three times a year and remains immobile as a result.

“We’re stuck,” Grice said. “It’s not just a problem for me, it’s a problem for my friends and other colleagues… There’s no way to get (my wheelchair) into the ambulance… It’s very disheartening.”

Depending on the location of the health emergency, mobility aids could be left anywhere between patient residences and the side of the street. Patients with disabilities should coordinate with friends and family to track their mobility devices.

Grice is working with local disability rights organization Access Living to address those concerns in Chicago through an effort called the Emergency Services Campaign.

After months of communication with the office of the Chicago Public Safety Administration, the office told Access Living on Monday that the city would allocate funds to address this issue, according to Access Living organizer Ryan McGraw. It is now up to the Chicago Fire Department to decide how to proceed with those funds, which are still unspecified.

“It was great to hear, but we have to stay vigilant to make sure they do what they say,” McGraw said.

In the coming months, McGraw said members of the Emergency Services campaign plan to contact Chicago aldermen and discuss creating a local law that would compel the city to address the issue.

In 2019, Salt Lake City purchased two wheelchair lift trailers for firefighters to hook onto SUVs. The Emergency Services campaign hopes for something similar in the Chicago area.

These trailers cost around $500 each, McGraw said. One design option would be for Chicago to purchase a wheelchair lift trailer for each of the city’s five fire districts.

Evanston Fire Department Deputy Chief Bill Muno said he had witnessed people being separated from their wheelchairs ‘quite often’ in his 35 years working for the fire department . He said it usually happens in patient residences.

On the rare occasions a patient has been separated from their motorized wheelchair on the street, Muno said Evanston firefighters secured him in the back of a fire truck to return him to the patient’s residence, or had worked with a towing company to help with this transport. .

“But if there’s a municipality or a city that has a lot to do, especially the size of Chicago, I think it definitely has a place if it has the resources to accommodate it,” Muno said. .

Muno said it would also be possible to create a partnership between the fire department and a third-party paratransit vehicle service. The service could be called upon to collect or transport mobility aids if necessary.

Whatever the solution, Grice stressed the need for people with disabilities to have a say in the design process and for firefighters to receive formal training on how to safely handle powered wheelchairs.

“What the city needs to do is involve people with disabilities and older people in the design part of the vehicles,” Grice said. “People with disabilities and older people need to be directly involved in this process.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @ZMilfred

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